Jewish-American Fiction Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jewish-American Fiction

Despite a long-standing Jewish presence in the New World, the existence of a Jewish-American literature, as such, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its origins lie in the immigrant culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which a massive influx of Eastern European Jews settled in America, particularly in the United States. The stigma of foreignness and the desire for cultural acceptance proved to be a prevalent theme in the writings of early Jewish-American novelists who, in works like Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), detailed the struggles of Jews as they experienced acculturation and dramatized the clash between traditional Jewish ethics and American materialism. In reaction to economic misfortune and prevalent anti-Semitism, many writers in the Depression era produced proletarian novels, such as Michael Gold's Jews without Money (1931), as a means of social activism and protest, or toward a more introspective and personal form of the novel, the prototype of which is Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934). The years following World War II saw such writers as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth move to the fore of American literature, heralding a period lasting from the mid-1950s until the 1970s sometimes described as a "Jewish-American Literary Renaissance," which accompanied a growing acceptance of Jews and Jewish culture. Largely responsible for defining the Jew in modern literature, the writings of these three figures typify such Modernist themes as alienation and self-deception, and, coupled with a sensitive and at times humorous concern for the human condition, represent the transition of Jewish-American fiction from an ethnic voice to a significant force in world literature. Still, these writers, like other mainstream Jewish-American authors—among them Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, and Arthur Miller—chose to deemphasize their Jewishness. More recently the Modernist outlook that has been shared by many Jewish-American authors has given way to a rediscovery of Jewish tradition and conscious efforts to depict the subtleties of Jewish culture and its long religious heritage in the contemporary novel. At the forefront of this movement are such writers as Cynthia Ozick and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of whom assert the importance of the Yiddish language and culture as central to maintaining the Jewish tradition. Likewise, recent years have witnessed a growing interest in two World War II-era topics that remained neglected in Jewish-American literature: the Holocaust and the creation and continued existence of the state of Israel. Concern for both subjects has since invigorated contemporary Jewish-American fiction and gained it renewed attention from an international audience.